The Women of 1916

It is estimated that at least 200 women were involved in the Easter Rising of 1916, many more than previously thought. Their roles varied as widely as the women themselves – and ranged from the traditional fundraisers, cooks, and nurses, to the more unexpected roles of sharpshooters, spies, smugglers, and experts on explosives.  A decent effort has been made over the last few years to give them credit for the part they played in the fight for Irish freedom, but sadly, they are still largely absent from many of the narratives.

Worse still is when a historian refers to the women as “great supporters” or “brilliant fundraisers” or “backbones”. These statements are true, but they still have an air of dismissal even amidst the recognition. They still show women in supportive or secondary roles and ignore the fact that many of them saw themselves as rebels, fighters, and soldiers in their own right – regardless of whether or not there were any men around. Until more historians can acknowledge that, many of the women who continuously risked their lives during Easter Week and in the years that followed, will not get the respect and honor that they are due.

Women of that time were secondary citizens. They were not allowed to vote. Many occupations were off limits to them and they had been in a subjugated role for many, many years. However, the suffragist movement was going strong, and Ireland was home to many of its loudest voices. In fact, one of the longest lasting and most hard line Republican groups in Irish history was born during that tumultuous time and it was a women’s organization – Cumann na mBan.

Cumann na mBan put themselves into a supportive role in order to raise money for the Irish Volunteers, who did not allow women in their ranks. That support was written into their bylaws and some Republican suffragists had a big problem with it. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington worked with CnmB on a lot of occasions, but refused to join their ranks because of their supportive role. On the other hand, the supportive members also taught themselves how to shoot, how to make bombs, and how to get through the city or into the jails without arousing suspicion. Some were spies. Some were strategists who aided the Irish Republican Brotherhood in their planning for the Rising. Many were couriers. They were not a passive group of ladies – and were certainly in the forefront—not just the background—of Irish politics and dissidence.

Cumann na mBan members were not the only women involved in the Rising, although they certainly were the majority. There were many others who were part of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, which insisted on full equality in their ranks, unlike the Volunteers. A fourteen year old girl named Molly O’Reilly was the first to raise the green flag over Liberty Hall on Palm Sunday in 1916. There were also at least ten ladies who came from other countries – Scotland, England, and America to fight for Ireland. One of them was Margaret Skinnider, who wore a homemade military uniform and nearly lost her life 99 years ago today. She was shot 3 times by the English while on a mission during the Rising. Many other female volunteers, including Margaretta Keogh, did not survive the conflict. Still others weren’t trained – they were the daughters, lovers, wives, or friends of those in the battles and they quickly learned to pass along messages or to distract soldiers just to help those who were fighting. They dropped off any food or water they could spare. They tended to be at risk even more often than many of the men who were not out of doors as often. Luckily, most soldiers weren’t used to thinking of women as rebels or combatants, at least at the beginning.  After Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell returned from yet another mission, James Connolly proclaimed , “When I was lying there in the lane I thought of how often the two of you went up and down there and nothing ever happened to yez!” The disregard most soldiers had for women made it easier to deceive them. When English forces came across Jenny Shanahan while they were storming into City Hall, they mistook her for an innocent bystander. She immediately played that role, making up stories and warning the English that there were hundreds of rebels on the roof. This may explain why the soldiers didn’t take the entire building for several hours, even though they had already breached it.

As the week went on, the soldiers became suspicious of the women. Chris Caffrey was trying to deliver a message when she was stopped and questioned. When her interrogators detained her, she quickly popped the note into her mouth and began chewing. When asked what she was eating, she offered them sweets from her pocket. She barely escaped and only the candy in her pocket saved her. It did not keep her from being “thoroughly” searched before they let her go.

The official surrender at the end of the Rising was given by Elizabeth O’Farrell. She was sent to deliver it to the English on behalf of Patrick Pearse and the other leaders. As she left, another woman wept – sure that Ms. O’Farrell was walking to her death. She made it to the Crown forces, but at first the English wouldn’t accept the surrender from a woman. Even the media erased her from all of the official surrender pictures. Only her shoes remain in the photographs as proof of the pivotal and important mission Patrick Pearse sent her on at the end of Easter week.

The Proclamation that the leaders delivered preached full equality and the men who signed it believed in that notion. Women were vital partners at every stronghold throughout the conflict, save one – Boland’s Mill. Eamon De Valera was in command there and would not allow women in his ranks, despite direct orders from Patrick Pearse and James Connolly to do so. As Sighle Bean Ui Donnachadha noted, “De Valera refused absolutely to have Cumann na mBan girls in the posts. The result, I believe, was that the garrison there did not stand up to the siege as well as in other posts.” That had to hurt. This type of misogyny came from the man who would become one of Ireland’s longest lasting and powerful politicians, so it’s no wonder that the role of women has been diminished in the years following the Rising. Women like Margaret Skinnider were refused the pensions due to them for years, only because they were women. They gave up their freedom and much of their lives in the cause of Irish liberty but had to fight again just to receive the same compensation as the men who may have done less. It’s time to acknowledge that without these ferocious females, the uprising at Easter would not have lasted as long as it did, and may not ever have happened at all.

It is my fervent hope that someday women will get the full recognition that has been lacking in almost all of the history books that focus on the Rising (except the ones that were written by women, of course). Give the women their due. They earned it.

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6 thoughts on “The Women of 1916

  1. […] that some of the Women of 1916 have been highlighted, it’s time to move on to another group that has been largely  left out […]

  2. […] to include and acknowledge the female fighters of 1916. I hope they will continue to highlight the women’s fight both for Ireland and for the recognition they deserve in the aftermath. Cheers […]

  3. Thanks for this, a good summary as a contribution to remedying a sad neglect.

    The role played by women was crucial after 1916 and up to the release of the prisoners and also afterwards. When the male fighters were low or in jail it was the women who organised vigils, pickets, demonstrations, etc. This was so at a number of junctures in history between 1916 and 1923 at least.

    Also, they expended great effort and imagination at keeping historical memory alive, for example posting people in front of demolished buildings at Easter to relate what happened there and indeed in the invention of the Easter Lilly.

    Certainly the state and the Republican movement has been dominated by disregard of women’s contribution in the past and potential in the future. However, I believe the criticism around the surrender photo is misguided. O’Farrell herself said that she stepped back when the photo was been taken. Her feet remained in shot and in some versions later were airbrushed out, it is true; the reason may have been misogyny or may have been aesthetics — I don’t think we have enough evidence to say either way.

    De Valera was certainly wrong, both in principle and according to orders, to refuse the women entry but in recent years I have begun to wonder whether his refusal was as misogynistic as it may seem to have been. His commanding role seems to have been the least effective of all carried out during the Rising and according to at least one witness he suffered a temporary mental breakdown or nervous exhaustion episode. Other witnesses testified that effective command was at least for a time in other hands. He was also criticised for not sending reinforcements to the 15 who put up the tremendous fight at Mount Street Bridge; his reasoning being that he was afraid to weaken his own garrison’s central position. The more I look at it the more it seems to me that he was overwhelmed with his responsibilities and, although he had apparently been a good officer up to that point in efficiency and in motivating Volunteers, his personal resources did not match up to the situation on that occasion.

    So, he may have seen the women as a support group that was also a vulnerable group adding even more to his sense of being overwhelmed by responsibility. Of course that would be a wrong view for him to take but if true does show him in a somewhat mellower light.

    • I do know that Ms. O’Farrell took a step back, and she said later that she regretted doing so. In the years since (up until very recently) she was left out of the story quite a lot – the one good thing about this year (because of the centenary) is that there are many, many people making an effort to give her credit for the bravery she and other women showed during that time.

      As far as De Valera goes, yes he was the most ineffectual and temperamental leader during Easter week. I understand the inherent desire to protect those that you view (correctly or not) as weaker or more delicate. However, he said later that he regretted the decision to not allow women in his garrison only because “his men had to do their own cooking”. For that and for many other things that happened during his later tenure(s) as leader, I’m pretty confident about calling him out as having misogynistic tendencies.

      Then again, he’s not around to ask so that makes it a (decently educated) guess anyway. Thanks for the comments though. You’ve given me some things to ponder for sure

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